Record of Investigation into Death (Without Inquest)
I, Olivia McTaggart, Coroner, having investigated the death of John McGregor Swift
(a) The identity of the deceased is John McGregor Swift;
(b) Mr Swift died in the circumstances described in this finding;
(c) Mr Swift died as a result of blunt trauma to the chest sustained in a motor vehicle crash;
(d) Mr Swift died on 25 May 2013 on the Huon Highway, Geeveston in Tasmania;
(e) Mr Swift was born in Tasmania on 2 November 1930 and was aged 82 years at the time of his death. Mr Swift was divorced and retired at the date of death; and
(f) No other person contributed to Mr Swift's death.
John McGregor Swift was born on 2 November 1930. He was 82 years old at the time of his death. He lived alone at his home in Brooks Bay. He had two children, born in 1960 and 1962. Mr Swift had limited contact with his son following a falling out many years ago. Mr Swift also had limited contact with his daughter as she lived in the United Kingdom.
Mr Swift was the holder of a current full car licence. The licence was subject to the requirement of him wearing visual aids. Mr Swift had a very good traffic record, with only two prior speeding offences in 1992 and 2010.
Mr Swift's close friend and neighbour, Pamela Eileen Rayner, stated that she had known Mr Swift for around 40 years, and that he had lived in the area for around 30 years. She would see him every two or three days. She described Mr Swift as being a pleasant person, who was happy to speak to anyone. She stated that he was a very good neighbour. On occasions, Mr Swift had spoken to Ms Rayner about him moving into Huon Eldercare; however he had never committed to it.
On about 5 March 2013 Mr Swift was admitted to hospital as he had been unwell. Ms Rayner stated that he had not been eating, and that he had fallen a number of times. Mr Swift was discharged from hospital on 14 March 2013. It was determined that his heart condition was the reason for his symptoms. Ms Rayner stated that after discharge Mr Swift's health appeared to have improved, and that he seemed back to his normal self.
Upon arriving home from hospital he began receiving assistance from Huon Eldercare, and also monthly visits by a nurse from the Royal Hobart Hospital.
At around 2.00pm on Wednesday 22 May 2013 Ms Rayner visited Mr Swift at his home. She stated that he appeared in good health and spirits. She stayed and talked with him for around one hour.
At about 9.00am on Saturday 25 May 2013, Ms Rayner stopped at the home of Mr Swift during her morning walk. She noted that the vehicle belonging to Mr Swift was not in the driveway. She stated that Mr Swift had a regular routine, and that he would drive to Huonville on Saturday mornings to get the papers. She noted that he had left earlier than he usually would. While at the home of Mr Swift, she observed the front doors to his house were both left wide open. Ms Rayner stated that it was out of character for Mr Swift to leave his house unsecured. She closed the doors prior to leaving.
With regards to his health, Mr Swift had a long history of ischaemic heart disease, previously suffering a heart attack in the mid–1970s. A report was prepared for the coronial investigation by his treating general practitioner, Dr Angela Retchford, of the Geeveston Medical Centre. Mr Swift had been a patient at the Geeveston Medical Centre since 1999. Dr Retchford states that he had been treated on multiple occasions by various cardiologists in Hobart, and had numerous cardiac procedures to open up his occluded cardiac arteries, which were a direct consequence of his atherosclerotic vascular disease. She stated that Mr Swift last visited a cardiologist in November 2008; and that his significant heart disease was considered stable. In Dr Retchford's opinion Mr Swift's decline and reason for hospital admission with rapid atrial fibrillation in March 2013, was due to a failure to take his medications.
Circumstances surrounding Death:
Some time prior to 9.00am on Saturday 25 May 2013, Mr Swift departed his home address in Brooks Bay. He was driving his purple 2007 Honda Jazz hatchback, registered number FR1316.
Around 10.00am Gaylene Joan Conlan was driving north on the Huon Highway, Geeveston. As she drove out of the northern end of the township of Geeveston, Ms Conlan observed a dark coloured, late model vehicle travelling on the incorrect side of the road towards her. This was the vehicle being driven by Mr Swift. Ms Conlan took evasive action by driving onto the gravel at the side of the road. Mr Swift continued travelling on the incorrect side of the road. Ms Conlan had come to a complete stop on the side of the road. Ms Conlan estimated that Mr Swift's vehicle was travelling at 80 km/h as it drove past her location, still on the incorrect side of the road. She noticed that the elderly driver appeared to be sitting very upright in the driver's seat. She stated that the driver did not look in her direction at all. Ms Conlan lost sight of the vehicle as it entered the northern end of Geeveston, still travelling on the incorrect side of the road.
At the same time, Danielle Rowlands was driving her vehicle in a southerly direction on the Huon Highway approaching Geeveston. Ms Rowlands was travelling behind Mr Swift's vehicle as she approached the intersection of Huon Highway and Arve Road, Geeveston. As she negotiated a left hand corner coming into Geeveston her vehicle was overtaken by Mr Swift's vehicle, which was travelling in the same direction and was on the incorrect side of the road. Ms Rowlands estimated that his vehicle was travelling at around 80 km/h as it drove past her and also past the vehicle that Ms Rowlands was following.
Mr Swift's vehicle impacted with a length of Armco railing which was erected on the side of the north bound lane. This railing followed the corner, and 'guided' the vehicle around the corner. From witness accounts and evidence at the scene, it would appear that Mr Swift had no control of the vehicle at this point. As the vehicle travelled to the end of the railing, it continued travelling south on the Huon Highway, past Arve Road, still in the incorrect lane.
As the vehicle travelled past the Geeveston Police Station, Ms Rowlands observed the vehicle hit the gutter at the edge of the highway. She observed the vehicle mount the footpath, as it appeared to accelerate, before it collided with an Aurora pole. Ms Rowlands observed that the vehicle had suffered major damage to the front.
At this time, Constable Michael Buick was at his home at the Geeveston Police Station. He heard a loud bang close to his house. Constable Buick investigated the noise and observed Mr Swift's vehicle had impacted heavily with a wooden Aurora pole. The vehicle had suffered major damage to the front, and the Aurora pole had been severed at the base as a result of the impact. The pole was being held up by the high tension wires only. Strong westerly winds made the scene hazardous due to the unstable Aurora pole. The vehicle was stationary in the north bound lane. The Huon Highway was then closed in both directions.
Police requested urgent attendance by Ambulance Tasmania, Tasmania Fire Service (TFS), State Emergency Service (SES), and Aurora personnel.
Emily Sala Tenna, a nurse, stopped at the scene to assist police with first aid. She noted that Mr Swift was breathing, however was not responsive to voice or touch. He was shaking, and appeared to be suffering some form of medical episode.
Constable Buick was advised that a paramedic would not arrive at the scene for around 45 minutes. As a result Constable Buick made arrangements for a local doctor, David Spilling, to attend the scene. Dr Spilling treated Mr Swift for about 20 minutes, inserting an intravenous line for fluids and providing oxygen, before the arrival of paramedics. An initial assessment of the injuries revealed bruising to his chest, and a small amount of blood coming from his mouth. No further external bleeding was observed, however his chest appeared an abnormal shape, and internal injuries were suspected.
Upon arrival of SES personnel, and following the removal of the driver's side 'B' pillar and both driver's side doors of the vehicle, Mr Swift was extracted from the vehicle. He was quickly transferred to a nearby ambulance. Paramedics and Dr Spilling worked on Mr Swift for about 50 minutes, using a variety of resuscitation methods. At 11.48am, Mr Swift passed away in the ambulance. He was then conveyed to the Royal Hobart Hospital by the ambulance.
A full investigation into the crash commenced, with police officers from Accident Investigation Services and Forensic Services attending the scene.
Crash Investigator, Constable Kelly Cordwell, stated in her report that the incident marks at the scene showed that the driver of the Jazz entered the left hand bend and travelled to the incorrect side of the road. The vehicle then mounted the kerb and travelled along the Armco railing before continuing on the incorrect side of the road. The vehicle then contacted the kerb twice before crashing into the Aurora pole. Once the vehicle hit the pole the vehicle has rotated clockwise, rear first around the pole, coming to rest on the roadway. Constable Cordwell formed the view that evidence at the scene indicated that Mr Swift had driven his vehicle on the incorrect side of the road for a significant distance, and that there had been no attempt to brake or avoid the collision.
Constable Cordwell further stated that inspection of the inside of the vehicle showed that both the driver and the front passenger airbags had been deployed. The 'B' pillar on the driver's side had been cut by emergency service personnel and the rear driver's side door had been removed. The driver's seat belt had also been cut and there was some blood on the webbing. The seat belt was locked in the worn position and there was burning on the 'D' shackle. From this inspection, Constable Cordwell was satisfied that the seatbelt was worn at the time of the crash.
The vehicle's speedometer was stuck on 80 km/h and the tachometer displayed a high reading. Constable Cordwell stated that these readings were more likely to be as a result of crash damage and not a true indication of the speed at which the vehicle has collided with the pole. In fact upon undertaking crush damage analysis she determined that the speed of the vehicle at the time of impact was 51 km/h. I note that the speed limit on this section of Huon Highway was restricted by sign to 60 km/h.
I accept the opinions and conclusions of Constable Cordwell in respect of the circumstances of the crash.
An inspection of the vehicle was completed by Transport Inspector Paul Wells on 4 June 2013. Mr Wells stated, and I accept, that the vehicle was in a roadworthy condition and that there was no evidence to suggest that a vehicle defect contributed to the cause of the crash in any way.
At the time of the crash the weather was fine and the roadway was dry. It was daylight and visibility was good. I am satisfied that weather conditions did not contribute to the crash.
The Huon Highway at the location of the crash is subject to a speed restriction of 60 km/h. Appropriate and clearly visible speed restriction signs are erected and clearly visible to traffic travelling in both directions.
On 27 May 2013 Dr Donald Ritchey, forensic pathologist, performed a post mortem examination of Mr Swift. Dr Ritchey, in his report, stated:
"The cause of death of this 82 year old man, John McGregor Swift, was blunt traumatic injuries of the chest sustained in a motor vehicle crash. Significant contributing factors were marked atherosclerotic coronary vascular disease, obesity and emphysema.
Mr Swift was the sole occupant and driver of a vehicle that travelled onto the wrong side of the highway before striking the Armco barrier and continued until impacting with a utility pole. He was being treated by ambulance personnel when he became unresponsive and died.
The autopsy revealed a well-developed, obese (obesity defined as a body mass index of greater than or equal to 30kg/m²) elderly Caucasian man with severe atherosclerotic coronary vascular disease including an enlarged heart with a transmural healed myocardial infarct in the posterior left ventricle. There were multiple rib fractures and a sternum fracture that would have made normal respiration difficult. There was a large mediastinal haematoma and bruise of the lungs."
Toxicology testing of Mr Swift's blood showed only atenolol in a therapeutic amount. This was prescribed for his heart condition.
I have spoken further with Dr Ritchey regarding his conclusions. He is of the opinion that Mr Swift is likely to have suffered a cardiac event whilst driving to cause him to lose full consciousness and thus control of his vehicle. Dr Ritchey states that the severity of Mr Swift's heart disease, combined with the circumstances of the crash, justifies this conclusion. He is not able to state, however, whether such an event would have caused Mr Swift's death if he had not been driving a vehicle. I accept the opinion of Dr Ritchey.
I find that Mr Swift died as a result of chest injuries received in a single motor vehicle crash on the Huon Highway at Geeveston. I also find that the crash was caused by a cardiac event causing Mr Swift to lose control of his vehicle. The observations of the witnesses as to his driving just before the crash and his low speed, together with his severe heart disease, indicate the occurrence of a medical event.
Further, the investigation has not identified any external factor that may have contributed to the crash. Mr Swift was travelling alone on his usual Saturday route. There was no involvement of another person or vehicle in the crash. There is also no evidence that Mr Swift had any suicidal intention or that the crash was a deliberate act on his part.
In my opinion, there was little that could be done to prevent the crash. Mr Swift had a good driving record, a full licence, and was scheduled for a routine medical assessment prior to 27 January 2014. Despite his heart condition, his health was stable before the crash. There was no indication that he was not fit to drive at the time.
Comments and Recommendations:
The circumstances of Mr Swift's death do not require me to make any recommendations or comments pursuant to section 28 of the Coroners Act 1995.
In concluding, I convey my sincere condolences to Mr Swift's family.
DATED : 2 March 2015 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania.